Malachy and his daughter Siobhan in a 2022 photo.

KIRWAN: Ah, That Glint in Malachy's Eye

I first encountered Malachy McCourt at a sparsely attended Irish-Americans for McGovern meeting in the fall of 1972. He was accompanied by Brian Heron, grandson of James Connolly. Thus was I introduced to American politics.

The campaign was already a sinking ship, and we didn’t help when we released a statement in Senator McGovern’s name calling for a united Ireland.

But an introduction had been made, and soon thereafter Mr. McCourt requested the services of Turner & Kirwan of Wexford to play at an Irish rally in Sunnyside against the war in Vietnam.

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 Malachy in full flow.

Malachy in full flow.

Malachy’s theory was that protesting in Greenwich Village was superfluous. We had to shift our offensive to conservative Queens.

Turner and I were tasked with warming up the audience for Malachy’s big speech, so we began with the Woodstock anthem, "Fixin’ To Die Rag," which we assumed would be a crowd favorite. A beer bottle whistling through the air and smashing upon the stage put paid to that notion.

Sizing up the situation, Malachy waltzed on stage and coolly advised, “Gentlemen, I believe it’s time for a strategic retreat.”

And so we sped back to The Bells of Hell to lick our wounds and plot new ways to resuscitate the radical heart of Irish-America.

Ah, the Bells, Malachy’s saloon on West 13th Street in the Village! Was there ever a better watering hole? For an eclectic celebrity clientele, unbridled conservation and wild imaginings, I doubt it. There was only one rule – Thou shalt not bore thy neighbor – and this, Malachy enforced with his customary wit and good fellowship.

There’s no denying the man had flaws, particularly his perverse refusal to pay Con Edison for their services. This led to a lack of lighting and refrigeration on occasion, particularly one long hot summer when one had to request a candle to navigate one’s way to the bathrooms.

Malachy sports a halo in this photo with John McDonagh taken in January.

Malachy sports a halo in this photo with John McDonagh taken in January.

Was Malachy political? Very much so, but he was not ideological. He often cast in his lot with anarchists, radicals, socialists and the like, but his real drive was to get everyone a fair shake economically.

He did loathe war and the “patriots” who promoted it – and he found it no coincidence that the children of the rich rarely serve. It’s sometimes forgotten that his gadfly run for New York Governor in 2006 was primarily a protest against the War in Iraq.

He believed in free speech – to the utmost. His radio shows on WMCA, and with John McDonagh on WBAI, were uproarious for he had scant respect for sacred cows. His wit could be corrosive, but it was always aimed at people well able to defend themselves.

Ironically, he is sometimes associated with Paddywhackery and stage Irishness, but Malachy abhorred such behavior. The guy didn’t even like jokes. His humor was original, and often self-deprecating.

He was, in fact, a deeply serious person. He had been raised in a grim, class-conscious Ireland and had faced grinding poverty. The local Catholic theocracy, with its emphasis on faith, rather than hope or charity, had little time for his kind.

Malachy was made to feel deeply ashamed of being poor and this scarred him and many others of his generation. Is it any wonder, he had little time for organized religion. “I’m an atheist, thank God” summed up his theological stance.

Reading was his salvation. It opened up worlds beyond the bigoted back lanes of Limerick. Eventually he would find sanctuary in the Republic of New York and become an accomplished author, actor and social commentator.

But at his core, Malachy was a humanist. He cared about people and inequality. That’s why he had little time for conservatism. The world, as he saw it, was neither good nor fair enough to preserve. Change was the only hope.

He had a huge influence on many of us, and we merrily joined him in a host of battles. He didn’t expect to win but, oh my, how he savored each small triumph. That smile of his and the glint in his eye was our reward, and a treasure to behold.

He was what they call in Irish, togha fir, literally, “the choice of men.” He was a rock to those who gathered around him, pain had made him fearless. 

A legend long before his death, that legend will undoubtedly grow, but those who knew him will cherish the memory of a lovely man, humble and caring, beneath all the accolades.